The European Commission's efforts to push for more inclusive language are important. But we should be careful and make sure we make room for differences.
ROME — In Italian, it's Buone feste or Buon Natale? "Happy holidays" or "Merry Christmas"? The controversy triggered over the European Commission's Union of Equality guidelines makes very little sense.
The EU does not prohibit anyone from using the word "Christmas." Such guidelines only serve to highlight the importance of language in preventing inequalities from being perpetuated or worsened.
At university, for instance, there is always a moment when a colleague refers to a student using the horrible term “disabled” (which is even more violent in French, as the term for "disabled" is "handicapé", or handicapped) and I, systematically, react the same way: "Can we, please, avoid reducing one to their disability?"
This often triggers the same reaction among my colleagues, who look at me, puzzled, muttering "but why is Marzano always such a nitpicker?”
More inclusive language
In the case of disabilities, it is not about being picky. The Union of Equality commission rightly calls for the use of a more inclusive language, without emphasizing whether a woman is single or married by distinguishing between "miss or mrs", or without creating barriers between heterosexual and homosexual or transgender people.
It is essential to realize that equality is also built through words, and that for instance, referring to a colleague as "mrs" is a clear way of continuing to discriminate against women.
No objection, then, to these guidelines? Is there no problem either when the Commission explains that all references to gender, sexual orientation, ethnic origin, disability and religious beliefs should be removed?
Identity and belief
Actually, I do have a few minor objections. Especially when I seem to perceive a conceptual shift from equality to identity, since it is not true that we are all identical and that, most of the time, it is precisely our differences that make us unique and not interchangeable.
Why, in order to respect equality, should there be no linguistic reference to gender, sexual orientation, religious belief or disability? Not to mention a disability is to erase it. Erasing is ignoring the specific needs of a person with a disability. Ignoring their specific needs is marginalizing them.
Why would wishing a non-believer "Merry Christmas" violate equality?
A similar discourse applies to sexual orientation, age, and religious beliefs: it is one thing to offend someone because they are gay, old, or even religious. It is another not to acknowledge (and therefore suppress) them as gay, lesbian, old, or Catholic.
How long did it take before homosexual people could finally emerge from the invisibility to which they had been relegated? How many Pride demonstrations had to be organised to obtain rights for gays and lesbians? Why would calling an elderly person "old" or wishing a non-believer "Merry Christmas" violate equality? Is there perhaps a value judgment behind the terms "homosexual," "trans," "elderly," and Christmas, or are we confusing the descriptive and evaluative levels?
A man in a wheel chair in Palermo
Making room for differences
I hate inequality and have always fought against it. Yet sometimes I suspect that, in the name of formal equality, we make the mistake of erasing differences. It is only by making room for differences — and by naming them clearly — that we can then aim for inclusion and equality: equal though different; equal because different.
However, I am ready to challenge myself if someone has the patience (and the will) to show me that I am wrong, that I am outdated, that I am working with a now obsolete software.
Also because this defense of the thousand shades of reality — which also leads me not to be shocked when I hear about Christmas, Passover or Ramadan — has nothing to do with defending the "Christian roots of the European Union'' as the right-wing party Forza Italia pointed out, nor with the absurd criticism that the intention of the EU is to rewrite the idea of family or nature.
Conception of the absolute
My doubts about some of the guidelines of the Union of Equality Commissions come to light most vividly when I think of Theo, one of my students, and the conversation we had recently. He explained to me that he would rather call himself "gay" than "homosexual"; or when I think of my mother, who is elderly and needs someone to give her a seat when she takes the bus, and that if she were just "more grown-up" she might have a harder time asking a young person to leave her a seat.
I get very irritated when people call me "miss": it's obviously a way to belittle me. I am uncompromising when I hear someone referred to as "disabled," because none of us are our own disability. Language is fundamental to building inclusion and equality. Those who deny this are either mistaken or acting in bad faith.However, let's be careful not to anesthetize language by using it with vague imprecision. This risks transforming language into the "night in which all cows are black", on which Hegel famously criticized his contemporary Schelling's conception of the Absolute. If we were all identical what could possibly make us unique?
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